Q&A: Coliseum on melody vs. melancholy, modern music videos, and occult imagery

Coliseum: Sister FaithColiseum: Sister Faith (Temporary Residence, 4/30/13)

“Bad Will”

Coliseum: “Bad Will”

Louisville’s favorite sons, Coliseum, have spent their decade of existence wedged within a punk-rock Venn diagram, falling in the overlap of punk, hardcore, rock and roll, and all sorts of “post” subgenres. Sister Faith finds ringleader Ryan Patterson as confrontational as ever, but what separates the men of Coliseum from the boys of other so-called punk bands is their willingness to confront themselves while simultaneously waving a middle finger at the institutions that keep ’em down.

Here Patterson answers some burning questions about the punishing new record, occult imagery, side projects, and the state of the music video.

Between your album art and the lyrical themes on Sister Faith (as well as on past Coliseum records), there’s a lot of occult imagery present. Do you recall what initially piqued your interest in those themes?

I find occult imagery to be magnetic, in the same way traditional religious imagery is appealing and interesting; it is mysterious and dark, vague, and often confusing in its intent, beautiful when executed well and frightening when perfected. I also find the occult to be somewhat ridiculous or silly. As with any fantasy elements, it can be interesting and exciting, and even fun, but ultimately is meaningless.

I like the imagery for imagery’s sake, but it holds no true significance for me. I believe in free will and I am an atheist, but I do not believe in magic. I do not believe in spirits or ghosts; I do not believe in gods, angels, or devils. I believe in what is tactile around me and what can be created with the human mind and imagination. I believe in science and in the majesty of nature. I believe in love and the things we build with our hands and our hearts.

My intent with a song like “Black Magic Punks” and even some of our imagery has been somewhat misunderstood. “Black Magic Punks” is a fun title, a fun moniker to describe Coliseum. But while the song itself might seem to be celebrating these ideas of “occult” and “evil” as fashion statements, it is actually an indictment of that — an indictment of the human insects swarming around the watering hole with their “occult” fashion-line T-shirts and inverted-cross tattoos (I’m guilty among them at times to be certain) but accomplishing nothing.

I understand the rebellion of the pentagram and the upside-down cross; I partake in that as well, but those are mostly empty gestures and hollow images. “Black Magic Punks” says, “There’s nothing true except the word built on decades of sweat from the punks before.” What’s real to me is art and community and true rebellion, living outside the lines, not accepting the status quo. What’s real is this culture that sprang from punk’s seed and grew into a worldwide community that has accomplished more than could ever have been imagined by the people who planted the idea with electric guitars and rebellious lyrics.

All that said, I was probably originally opened to up that imagery mostly via music and film, although I also feel that it’s also nearly omnipresent via the church and images of crucifixions, death and resurrection, devils and demons, etc. Christian imagery and iconography is just the other side of the coin from the sigils and altars of occultism, so we’re exposed to that just about everywhere we turn. It’s not a big leap to turn that on its head and dive into the darker side of that equation.

When the band went into shooting the music video for “Bad Will,” how prepared were you to get arrested?

I certainly was not prepared to be arrested.

As someone who seems to value the relationship between visual arts and music, what role do you perceive the music video to play in the career of a band in this day and age?

Music videos were very important to me when I was growing up. Shows like MTV’s 120 Minutes were instrumental in opening me up to new bands, and great videos could be such a unique and interesting companion/visual for a great song.

Like many things these days, the music video has become a more accessible tool for most bands. While the days of the high-budget video may be mostly gone, it’s also quite possibly the heyday of music video. The tools to create the video are reasonably affordable and accessible; the means to share the video is literally a click away.

For us, the music videos are exciting and fun; they’re additional visual components that can represent the song and the band in a new and different way. I love it, and it’s one of the aspects of this digital age as it relates to music that I am most excited about.

From someone with tons of film/video experience and education like Max Moore making our “Black Magic Punks” and “Bad Will” videos to an accomplished photographer like Joe Watson making one of his first music videos with “Love Under Will” to a total amateur like me putting together the “Fuzzbang” clip, it’s really exciting, and the possibilities are wide open.

We plan to make music videos for all of the songs from Sister Faith. I think it’s helpful in sharing the song and putting forth our aesthetic, but I don’t think it necessarily equates to more records sold or a raise in the exposure of the band. Ultimately, it’s just another part of the overall experience, and I’m happy that we’re able to do it at all.

Outside of Coliseum, you also play in Louisville bands Whips/Chains and Black God. How does playing in those projects inform your creative decisions in Coliseum? And vice versa, how does playing in Coliseum influence your writing in any other project?

Each situation is different because it’s a different band and a different set of individuals, but it’s also all part of my musical life and landscape. Any band you play in influences or shapes your playing and perspective in some way, just like almost any music I hear influences me in some way.

Black God has a very specific sound and set of parameters we put in place, and though Whips/Chains is a bit more free-wheeling and experimental, it’s very much about heavy, intense hardcore. I’d say Whips/Chains harkens back to early Coliseum but not overly intentionally; it’s just raw, heavy hardcore, so it ends up crossing some of the same ground stylistically.

That said, Black God was the first time I’d played just guitar in a band in a quite a few years, and there were some ideas that I focused on with Black God that I’d toyed around with in Coliseum prior that later ended up coming out in Coliseum in a big way.

I’d been writing guitar parts and riffs that were less chord-based and focused more on single notes; I’d say “Waiting” from the Parasites EP was one of the first times I tried to do that for most of the song. Then when Black God started, I did a lot of that with many of those songs. So after doing that a bit with Black God, I really liked it, and it came out a lot in the writing for Sister Faith — a vast majority of the guitar work on the album is single notes rather than chords. So in that very specific way, I can say that my experience in Black God affected my guitar playing in Coliseum.

The last song on the record, “Fuzzbang,” has a notably more uplifting vibe than past material. Do you see the band exploring this direction more in the future?

I don’t know — it wasn’t really a vibe that we were trying for with “Fuzzbang”; it was a fun riff that came about one day while I was messing around on an old guitar, and we later built the song around it. It was the combination of that riff and also wanting to do a song that was just one note the entire time. Then [producer] J. [Robbins] suggested the devolving kraut-rock thing at the end, and we experimented with that in the studio until it came together.

I guess it’s undeniable that “Fuzzbang” is our poppiest and maybe even catchiest song. We weren’t certain that it was something that we could pull off, but we wanted that windows-rolled-down-and-stereo-cranked-up vibe, like classic Superchunk or Dinosaur Jr. But at the same time, the lyrics are pretty bleak — they’re sad and worn down, full of fear and the desire to escape everything that’s going on around you.

I think we’ve often done songs with a catchy anthem and a big chorus that are lyrically very dark, like “Late Night Trains” or even “Year of the Pig” from Goddamage – a song that “Fuzzbang” actually quotes in its first line. I like the combination of melody with the melancholy.

What inspired the decision to have so many collaborators (J. Robbins, Wata from Boris, Jason Loewenstein from Sebadoh, et al) this time around?

We’ve always had friends make guest appearances on our records, and House With a Curse kind of took that to its extreme with around ten different people contributing to the album. The number of contributions on Sister Faith was relatively small by comparison.

We enjoy having friends whose music we love and respect make appearances in our songs; it’s fun and interesting for us to hear a sound or idea in one of our songs that is unique to that person. It’s part of sharing the experience with our larger community of friends and bands. Hopefully, it’s interesting and enjoyable for the listener as well.

If there was one major theme that you could make sure people take away from Sister Faith, what would that be?

That we can face the darkness and the end that is inevitable in life and come away with some sense of hope.